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Columbia Business Monthly

REI Automation is ready for its next growth phase thanks to a $3 million expansion and a new partnership with Germany’s HAHN Group,

Dec 09, 2019 11:40AM ● By Leigh Savage

REI Automation Inc. has seen steady growth in the 21 years since Grant Phillips and Paul Brown took ownership, and they expect an even greater expansion after being acquired by HAHN Group in November. 

“It’s a worldwide network of companies that are similar to us,” Phillips says about Germany-based HAHN Group, a network of specialized companies for industrial automation and robot solutions with production sites around the world. 

Following last month’s acquisition, the REI of today will be very much the same as the REI of yesterday. Phillips is still CEO, Brown remains vice president, and operations will continue under the same management and shareholders. “This will help us sustain the growth pattern we’ve seen over the past few years,” Phillips says. “Being part of a worldwide network of companies will allow us to enter new markets” and learn from the experiences of companies that provide similar services. 

Columbia-based REI Automation develops automation systems for manufacturers, specializing in designing and building custom industrial equipment like assembly lines and robotic cells. For example, REI designs factory automation systems and control systems for Volvo Cars in Berkeley County, which Phillips calls “a good loyal customer.”

That HAHN Group acquisition isn’t the only big news. In October, REI announced a $3 million expansion at its 8.5-acre Veterans Road campus, where the company is building a new headquarters and adding onto an existing assembly hall. The expansion is expected to create 35 new jobs. The company built the facility in 2006 and has expanded in 2010, 2014 and 2015. 

“We’ve been doing an expansion about every five years, and we have enough space to keep expanding as we need to,” Phillips says. “We figure this should be good for 5-10 years.”

REI has grown from a three-person operation purchased in 1999 to a $25 million company that employs 80 people. The business has grown every year and has never experienced a downturn—even during the recession. “We chose not to participate,” Phillips says. 

That’s when the leadership saw the value of diversification. As the automotive industry struggled, REI was able to focus more on its medical industry clients. “That’s part of our strategy,” he says. “We want to stay involved in all five industries—automotive, medical, nuclear, electronics and consumer goods—and then when one has slow times, we’re able to shift.”

He adds, “It worked out well. We grew straight through 2009 and 2010, and even hired 13 people that year.” 

This year, REI Automation was named to Inc. magazine’s Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the country. Applying for the first time, REI debuted at No. 3,317, reporting growth of 108 percent from 2015 to 2018.

Jeff Ruble, director of the Richland County Economic Development Office, says that as manufacturing moves even further toward automation, “a company like REI is exactly what we are looking for. They are tech-oriented, and they are part of the technology solution. They are a growth company that really stands to benefit the county.”

As unemployment dips to historic lows, hiring is now among the company’s biggest challenges, though Phillips says REI has managed to find great employees thanks to in-house training, a full-time HR manager looking for people with the right values, and relationships with area schools. Ruble has repeatedly heard that skilled positions are tough to fill, but says good public schools and a solid technical college program in the area create great feeders into local job openings. 

The Richland County Economic Development Office’s Kim Mann, manager of existing business, says the partnership with HAHN could point to even more growth in the future “because it expands more markets for them” around the world. 

REI Automation is featured prominently in the Richland County Economic Development Office marketing video used to recruit businesses to the area. “They are a company we take others to see,”  Ruble says, “both because of their success and because of the type of company they are, designing advanced technology processes.” 

Phillips earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and moved to South Carolina to work for GE before purchasing REI, formerly called Reverse Engineering, in 1999. The company is celebrating its 30th anniversary, as Reverse Engineering was founded in 1990. 

“I would like to say I had a vision for how large we’d become,” he says with a laugh.

Phillips says the steady growth, which he plans to continue under the HAHN Group, can be chalked up to great employees, diversification, and a willingness to change and adapt. “We have highly skilled employees, and we’ve done a good job of adjusting to the constant changes in technologies,” he says. “We take our customers’ difficult problems and solve them with technology.”


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